If someone asks you “Who are you?”, how would you describe yourself? How do you define yourself?
Are you your dreams, hopes, and aspirations? Your fears? Your likes and dislikes? Your life experiences? Your beliefs and non-beliefs? Your habits and obsessions? Your past and your future? All of the above? Are these enough to capture your uniqueness and all you are?
You may find that words can feel limiting in capturing your you-ness. But it still feels important to try to define yourself because you want to tell your story. You want someone to know you and share a connection with you. You want reassurance that you are not alone. Ultimately, you want to feel loved, whether you believe that it is possible or not.
Most people may say that it is only natural to search for love outside of ourselves, and this is what they do throughout their lives. If they feel love coming from somewhere – a spouse, a friend, a child, or a pet – they feel like they have something. If love leaves, there is a devastating sense of loss. So, in this scenario, love is something that can be lost and found, given or denied, accepted or rejected, and valued or neglected.
As long as we are looking to be loved and reassured by someone or something outside of ourselves, it is unlikely that we know who we are. As long as we feel like we live on an island and are searching for connection among other islands, our sense of separation tells us that we are incomplete. And this is where we will begin the story of the Ego and its relationship to awakening….
The Ego, at its core, is a fundamental perception that we are isolated and incomplete. This perception shapes our view of ourselves, others, and how we experience life. When we look around, it may seem like most people are seeking to complete themselves – to be loved – and the drama of the world unfolds around all of the resulting fears, vulnerabilities, and insecurities. Most people are not OK with how they “see” themselves, and there is an underlying sadness, which they continuously mask through posturing and various distractions (including the very act of seeking).
By its nature, Ego-perception is self-absorbed. It continuously compares everything relative to “me” and “mine” vs. “not-me” and “not-mine.” The Ego compares us to others, and our possessions to the possessions of others. Based on these comparisons, we may feel like we have more or less value than someone else.
There is a link between Ego and emotional reactivity. We may find ourselves continuously reacting to perceptions, and we may not even question if what we perceive is real; it all feels very real and personal. For example, someone may hear what someone says and perceive it as an attack – even if the other person had no such intention. That someone will promptly react to this perceived attack as if it were real, unaware and unconscious of the fact that he or she is battling illusory shadows. The drama does not exist, but that doesn’t stop an entire dynamic of conflict from arising. What’s interesting is that, after awakening and releasing old emotional debris, the distortive lens of the Ego ceases to operate. Instead of imagining reality, we just see it for what it is and ourselves as love itself. We no longer create drama where none exists.
The Ego is like a cocoon, wrapped tightly around the machinery that is intended to perceive reality clearly. Ego-based actions prioritize the individual – either in the positive or the negative. We may either base our identity on putting ourselves down, or self-aggrandizing, or vacillating between the two. We look outward to see something reflected back about ourselves, and we are constantly staring at our reflections. The world’s only purpose appears to be to reflect us to ourselves, and we may not truly see anything else. In fact, we live in a world full of people who are infatuated with their own reflections. Are they ever really seeing or relating to one another? What would motivate them to break free? How often do they truly exchange love, gratitude, respect, and service? It is easy to receive love when it affirms one’s identity, but anything else feels difficult and irritating, as it confronts one’s idea of self.
The Ego likes to play games that help us to feel more alive. It-You may play the victim or the aggressor, the smart one or the unintelligent, the superior one or the inferior one. Self-negativity, counter to our intuition, is an effective way to feel alive – the amount of emotional drama it generates can be addictive.
The Ego has fear at its root. Because we feel that the Ego is us, we may attack or defend against anything that appears to threaten our identity. When someone brings up certain qualities about ourselves, we are likely to defend and justify ourselves, or we may get angry and walk away, or we shut down. It is difficult for us to simply listen to how others perceive us because the threat to “me” feels too great. The Ego makes us feel like we have to protect our island at all costs!
The Ego constantly looks for attention. It needs continuous affirmation. Whether through sadness, despair, or social contact – it seeks reassurance. While under the Ego’s spell, we do not feel real unless we act out the games the Ego needs to play. While we are dismantling the Ego, it may feel like we are dying – and, in a sense, our perception of the self is dying.
The Ego is neither evil, nor good. It is just a lens through which we have gotten used to seeing the world. However, this limited perception is not who we are. There is so much more to us, and we may never know it if we continue to be trapped in the Ego’s version of our world. After we no longer identify with the Ego, we are free from the illusion. But while we are under the Ego’s spell, everything we perceive – no matter how distorted- feels very vivid and real.
Very few are aware that they are caught up in this illusion because they identify with the illusion. At some point, a person may sense that something is off, but he or she can’t quite pin it down. This individual may be ready to start dismantling the Egoic structure, which got him or her this far. This person is no longer fulfilled by seeking love outside and may start the journey of transforming the very mechanism that senses and interprets reality. And this is the beginning….The process of awakening, guided by a teacher, breaks the illusion and dissolves the perception of separation.
While working on dismantling the Ego, it is critical to stay in touch with the teacher, who may help you handle the intense energies that arise as you confront illusion. The teacher also helps you to become conscious of the illusion, which you may not even know is there. You won’t truly understand the Ego until it is confronted by an awakened being, and – for a brief moment – you realize that you are not that. After you have this experience of the Ego, you know what it means to live an illusory life and to be free from it – you get a glimpse of where we are all going.
While the basis of an Egoic identity is the fear of isolation, freedom from identifying with the Ego – awakening – is the state of love itself and knowing that we are already complete. An awakened being is only interested in sharing the love he or she already feels, and this love is not conditioned by any life circumstances. A free being no longer perceives the self in a way that can be hurt or elevated above others. And, there is no longer emotional reactivity to imagined shadows. Emotions pass through the nervous system and do not stick – they come and clear right out!
While it may be impossible to define yourself using words, you can learn to feel your true self as a state of love that is an integral part of all existence. Feeling this truth will allow you to express it with ever-increasing clarity, and celebrate your Light as the Light of all. The Ego is complicated, but the Light is simple.